Perhaps as old as the act itself is a question survivors of sexual assault are often asked:
“What were you wearing when you were attacked?”
A traveling art installation seeks to answer this question – with clothes. The “What Were You Wearing” exhibit displays the outfits of 18 rape survivors to show what they were wearing at the time they were assaulted.
Ensembles are accompanied by harrowing stories from both women and men to confront the myth that sexual assault is provoked by risqué clothing.
Jen Brockman, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center at the University of Kansas, first paired with her colleague Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert in 2013 to create the installation after hearing the poem of a rape survivor titled What I Was Wearing.
The display debuted that fall on campus and it has been well-received at several other universities since then. Student or not, college aged adults are at an elevated risk for sexual violence (RAINN).
“One of the most impactful aspects of the installation is the direct confrontation of a pervasive rape culture myth. Participants come face to face with the embodiment of this myth, the question ‘What were you wearing?’ They can see themselves reflected in the clothing and the stories,” says Brockman.
The outfits, donated by faculty and students from across the nation, were recreated based on survivor’s descriptions. Each one hangs on a gray panel next to its matching story.
Pinned to the felt walls are everything from T-shirts, gym clothes, baggy jeans, hoodies and pajamas to a toddler’s size 2 nightgown.
One story next to a child’s pink summer dress reads, “A sun dress. Months later, my mother would stand in front of my closet and complain about how I never wore any of my dresses anymore. I was six years old.”
A poignant experience for attendees, “What Were You Wearing” has brought validation and healing for many who felt somehow responsible for the crimes committed against them.
Sexual assault attorney Jessica Pride voiced her support of the exhibit:
“It’s so important that we’re changing the story of rape culture by putting the blame where it belongs, which is on the perpetrator. We need to shift the focus to their conduct. It’s not about victim blaming, it’s about holding perpetrators accountable,” says Pride.
More Than a Movement
In the midst of the ongoing #MeToo movement, survivors and awareness advocates have fought to dismantle long-held cultural beliefs that insist women incite assault by dressing provocatively. Those coming forward have been shamed for varying reasons, but the “What Were You Wearing” exhibit expressly addresses victim shaming based on clothing choices.
The #WhatWereYouWearing hashtag gained traction after a Twitter thread in March of 2014 drew national attention when one user, Christine Fox (@steenfox), sought to prove a point. Disturbed by a male tweeter who suggested that sexual assault victims needed to “do better” and not “dress like a hoe,” Fox inquired of her followers:
These stories, along with those of the exhibit, serve as powerful examples of the severe disconnect between reality for survivors and cultural misconceptions.
“We hope this experience helps to change attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs surrounding sexual violence and victim blaming,” Brockman said.
Whether through hashtags or the installation, sexual assault survivors have bigger goals than starting a movement; they want change.
The “What Were You Wearing” exhibit is on display this April for Sexual Assault Awareness month at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.